10 ways to reduce food waste in Washington, DC

Please note, the following post originally appeared on the website of the School of International Service at American University. It’s available here.

By Lesly Baesens

Approximately 40 percent of food produced each year in the US is wasted, from farmers discarding part of their crops due to supermarket demand for aesthetically pleasing produce to consumer over-reliance on expiration dates. The resources and human labor necessary to grow, transport, and process food that will never be consumed have negative environmental, social, and economic repercussions. Notably, food rotting in landfills emits methane, a major contributor to climate change.

Federally, there are no laws, incentives, or enforceable requirements to reduce food waste. However, cities and states have stepped up and made pledges to reduce food waste. Washington, DC, aims to reduce food waste with the long-term goal of establishing curbside organic waste pick-up for composting. While preferable to sending food waste to landfill, composting should be a second-to-last resort as the resources necessary to produce the food have already been expanded.

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Salmon belly with pickled collard stems by Teaism. This dish was created to use ingredients that might otherwise go to waste. Urging more restaurants to showcase how they reduce waste, is one of Lesly Baesen’s top 10 recommendations for reducing food waste in DC. This dish was created as part of the RescueDish initiative.  (Photos by Amanda Joy Photographics)

I recently submitted my paper Leading by Example: 20 Ways the Nation’s Capital Can Reduce Food Waste to the DC government. This paper explores the ways DC can comprehensively tackle food waste. To develop these suggestions, I spoke with and included the input of city government staff, civil society, and private sector food waste stakeholders. Here are ten of the most critical recommendations for reducing food waste in the District:

(1) INCLUDE A FOOD WASTE REDUCTION TARGET IN THE SUSTAINABLE DC PLAN, WHICH AIMS TO MAKE DC “THE HEALTHIEST, GREENEST, AND MOST LIVABLE CITY IN THE UNITED STATES.”

Having a specific target could help the city move beyond its compost-focused waste reduction strategy and address food waste more holistically by considering source reduction and reuse measures, such as donating food to food banks.

(2) REQUIRE GROCERS TO MEASURE AND PUBLICLY DISCLOSE WASTED FOOD AMOUNTS.

There currently are no requirements for retailers to publicly report the amount of food they trash. Bringing transparency to the amount of food discarded would incentivize retailers to waste less.

(3) REQUIRE GROCERY STORES TO DONATE UNSOLD FOOD.

DC could require grocery stores to donate unsold food, just as France did on a national scale in 2016.

(4) RUN A CITY-WIDE CONSUMER EDUCATION CAMPAIGN THROUGH BOTH ONE-ON-ONE AND VIRTUAL INTERACTION. ENGAGE CONSUMER-FACING BUSINESSES IN THIS CAMPAIGN.

There are several models DC could use to run a consumer education campaign. For example, engaging residents on social media, collaborating with retailers to provide shoppers with recipes on how to use leftovers, or through direct engagement at city events.

(5) CREATE PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIPS TO MAKE DONATING EXTRA FOOD EASIER.

The lack of a reliable food pick-up system can prevent businesses from donating their excess food. DC could increase food rescue organizations’ capacity by connecting them with food donors and with volunteers who can help transport donated food.

(6) CREATE AN ENABLING ENVIRONMENT TO ENCOURAGE INNOVATIVE FOOD WASTE REDUCTION MODELS.

DC should encourage innovative business models that improve food access while reducing food waste. For example, grants could be awarded to businesses that are proposing new and innovative ways of reducing food waste, such as working with local area food banks to start an at-home food distribution system for low income residents.

(7) CREATE A WEBSITE DEDICATED TO FOOD WASTE REDUCTION EFFORTS AND EXECUTE A MARKETING CAMPAIGN DRIVING TRAFFIC TO IT.

DC should create an interactive, consumer-friendly website dedicated to combating food waste. This website would serve a variety of purposes for both businesses and individual consumers, such as featuring local businesses participating in food-waste reduction efforts and providing consumers with ideas they can implement in their own lives.

(8) DEVELOP A BROCHURE TO EDUCATE RESTAURANTS ABOUT THE POTENTIAL ECONOMIC BENEFITS OF REDUCING FOOD WASTE.

Restaurants have a lot to gain from wasting less food. Restaurants could save an estimated $1.6 billion annually by adopting food waste reduction measures. DC could provide them with a brochure highlighting the economic benefits of and methods for food waste reduction specific to the industry.

(9) TURN RESCUEDISH DC INTO A HIGHER VISIBILITY EVENT.

The DC Food Recovery Working Group (FRWG) organizes an annual “RescueDish DC” event, which invites chefs to make creative dishes with “castoff” ingredients. To increase the number of chefs that showcase their talent and creativity, DC could consider partnering with FRWG to give RescueDish DC more visibility. Such an event would not just give these restaurants recognition, but also allow them to think of new and inventive ways to cook with unused food.

(10) INCENTIVIZE FOOD WASTE REDUCTION MEASURES IN GROCERY STORES BY ENGAGING THEM IN A HIGH-VISIBILITY, PUBLIC-FACING CAMPAIGN.

DC could provide a retail-specific checklist of items to reduce waste. Retailers who fill the greatest number of checklist items could be featured on social media, as well as be provided with a special logo that they could display in stores, in circulars, and online.

Mayor Muriel Bowser should consider implementing some of these recommendations, as they would align DC with other US municipalities in addressing food waste. Implementing them all could turn DC into a model of food waste reduction both in the US and internationally. At the same time, these recommendations could save the city money, create jobs, improve food security, and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This in turn would contribute to reaching DC’s goal of being the nation’s most sustainable city.

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